Chameleon Street

Chameleon Street ★★★★★

“I’m a victim brotha, a victim of 400 years of conditioning, the man has programmed my conditioning, even my conditioning has been conditioned ha!”

One of the most underrated, unique, and honestly important films of the last 30 years. Based on the true story of Douglass Street a con man in Detroit in the 70s. Who got his foot in some unbelievable doors, with some crazy credentials, whether it was finessing his way into becoming a doctor or a lawyer. Getting fake diplomas from big universities such as Duke. It uses the conman story to muse on Identity, class, race. I’d heard about for a while as this lost masterpiece, and While I enjoyed it the first time I saw this I felt puzzled by just how different it was. But I realize with this viewing, after completely giving myself to it’s odd voice, I can without a doubt agree with the sentiment that it’s a masterpiece. There’s simply nothing like it. It feels like a series of off beat vignettes and performance pieces, that simultaneously flow together and rhyme in an off beat hilarious, and profound way. The shot language and editing are off the wall. The freeze frames, the transitions with the trains remind me of something out of the Czech new wave classic “Daises” or “Koyaanisqatsi” I love some of the shadowy lighting. The stream of conscious voice over, but the cherry on top is the sharp writing and direction and mesmerizing lead performance from Wendell B. Harris Jr.  

It’s not only one of the best uses of voice over narration, but one of the most captivating un reliable narrator perspective films. I can see the influence on films like “American Pyscho” “Man Bites Dog” in that way. A lot of films feel like they express blackness in a way that feels like it’s trying to sell an idea or some kind of humanity to a white audience in a performative way, “Authentically black” What’s sooo great about the way Wendell B Harris presents Douglass Street, sooo rich and complex. He has a lot of traits that I can’t stand, but at the same time I find him admirable and incredibly relatable. Harris fits an archetype of a certain type of black man who’s looked at as “different” or a “respectable one” his buttery smooth voice, his distinguished heir about him that resembles Obama or Tom Doubious from “The Boondocks” Harris uses this persona to ruminate on a lot of issues that not only have to do with how white people perceive blackness, but how we perceive different facets of it, you see different kinds of black people he interacts with, and what that really says. He’s a Chameleon in the way he can morph into any kind of persona to adapt. 

To me it says so much about Street in the way he views women. It reminds me of films like “8 1/2 or Eraserhead” how different women in his life seem to represent a part of his subconscious or personality. The gorgeous black French women is as a worldly right hand. seems to be a projection of a certain class and pretentiousness of exoticism or intellectualism he strives for. But also presents an intimidating challenge to him. His wife who’s also pretty that represents his fear of working class “mediocrity” and also someone who isn’t on the same wave length as him intellectually. But serves aS a non challenging force. It comments  in a way I really don’t see expounded to this extent in any film. 

To me the scene that feels like the crux is the scene where he being observed and performing the histrecitmy. Not to take shots at specifically health care workers( especially in this time) but to me it’s real comment on how a lot of professions are really a game of appearances. You hear all the time about some person who has a high status or credentials in a profession committing negligence in way where I say to myself “ how did nobody stop this person wayyy earlier”  I hear things about a person who is clearly doing something terrible, but people care for them because they have certain credentials on their resume. This film really puts a mirror to that. 

The dialogue while tonally expressionist feels not only clever but incredible genuine. So many quotables. The conversation in the van with his friend at the beginning about “good hair” and “conditioning” which I first heard sampled in the Blackstar classic jam “Brown Skin lady”. The line where he’s thirsting over this tall dark female basketball player. Musing in his voice over about how he wants to rap to her like Barry White” go on and Serengeti me baby!” His prison diagnosis interview where he talks about standing in a crowd of white people and how they smell like “wet dog”  

Some visual motifs that still feel like I’m scratching the surface with even after a 3rd viewing. The way they reincorporated masks is interesting. The motif of the French Beauty and the Beast. At first to me it was merely a quirky reference to a thing he loves. But to me it has to do with perceptions, identity and maybeee a reach, but how it plays into black culture, with some of the African masks. I think out of everything that resonates with me is this idea of this “character” as black people we are conditioned to have. How it weighs on our subconscious, how some might take a short cut or avoid taking a certain route in life because of course because  lack of resources or opportunity, but this internal struggle with inferiority of intellect, status a sense of being, alienation of being an “other” that has been projected on us. A lot of which through the medium of cinema. It illustrates this in such a nuanced way.

There is a reason outside of it simply being offbeat and weird that it was seemgling hidden as a Sundance jury prize winner. Wendell B. Harris has been very candid about how he was blacklisted from the industry. The distribution of this film was incredible criminal. There was an option to remake this film with Will Smith of all people” (BAGGER FUCKING VANCE!!!) While it’s definitely b.s. I can see how studio execs and even black filmmakers, and higher ups with some weight could not vibe with this. It’s such a transgressive fraught film in it’s messaging. It’s a real attack on class and status to the point where I see how it can turn off certain bourgeois sensibilities. 

Back to Will Smith it’s weird how he makes clear nods, and inspiration from this film and doesn’t ever mention it. Whether it’s his film “Six degrees of separation” or the scene in “Pursuit of Happiness” (a film where the happy ending is the black man joining Wall Street) there’s the famous scene of him solving a rubix cube, and there’s in fact a scene where Doug Street does the same thing in an interview. “Catch me if You can” that film takes from this one wholesale, but tells it’s story in a way less interesting manner imo. It kind adds to the theme of this film that Frank Abagnale Jr. went on to work for the F.B.I. While Douglass Street went to prison. The only person in Hollywood who seems to embrace this film is Steven Soderbergh, I think the first film I saw him in was his cameo in “Out of Sight” It’s really a travesty that when people mention seminal independent or black films this isn’t mentioned. I heard noise about it getting some kind of restoration, hopefully that’ll get it the audience it deserves, and maybe an opportunity for Wendell B. Harris to make another film.

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